About Me

Growing up in a small New England town with a mother who was an antiquarian it was inevitable that I would be exposed to old things. After graduating from UMass/Amherst I lived in Connecticut, taught school, married, and raised three children in suburbia. A move to Newburyport MA renewed my interest in all things old. This background has now evolved into research, writing, consulting and all the things I love to do.

Prudence Fish

Thursday, October 10, 2013


Many times people have come to me with an invitation to look at an antique house.  They think I will be a impressed with word such as, “You’re going to love this house" followed by  "It is all restored.  The beams are all exposed, there is exposed brick all around the fireplace.”
This room has too much stripped pine
and badly pointed bricks.

Why am I not excited to hear this?  Here is why.

A common notion is that early houses were rough, somewhat  primitive.  Most of the houses we see were certainly built after 1700.  The ones that have survived were not primitive.   Our forefathers wanted refined houses.  By 1730 at the latest beams were being boxed in with smooth boards and  completely covered.  Plaster was smooth and any exposed brick around the fireplace was parged and the bricks of the chimney always covered with paneling, plaster or a lovely breastplate above the mantle.

Our ancestors would not recognize their once dignified abodes with rough uncovered beams, revealing the marks of the adz, plaster made to look “colonial” and the parging chipped off the now damaged bricks.   Even removing all of the paint reveals a boring sea of brown pine.  The paint residue in the pores would render the house unrecognizable to its builder.  An original owner would recoil at shiny floors stripped and coated with urethane.

Jacob Smith, Architect/Builder
Nearly thirty years ago, early in my career as a Realtor, I learned the following lesson well.  I had great buyers  who wanted a good antique house. They knew what they were looking for.   A lovely Federal period house (at least I thought so) came on the market.  It was in mint condition.  The features were excellent and the architectural details were executed by the hand of Jacob Smith, a Federal  period architect/builder and follower of Asher Benjamin, author of America’s first pattern book. 

The First American Pattern Book
Greenfield, MA, 1797

Walking through the house I could see that my “buyers” were a little “underwhelmed” to say the least by this house I so much admired.  I also admired the homeowner who daily for about 17 years stripped the woodwork, interior louvered shutters, the staircase, and even the floors by hand with Red Devil  Paint  Remover.  After completing the house itself she proceeded to strip and refinish all of her furniture including the ornate Victorian grand piano.

The buyer summed up the showing with these words of advice, “Pru, find us a house that hasn’t been scraped!”  He was right.  The house had indeed been scraped and the paint history and possible other evidence erased forever.  This  house has been sold several more times in the intervening  years and out of respect for Julie’s Herculean effort, no one as far as I know has ever added a lick of paint to that house.  They don’t understand how pretty it could look.  In my mind I see it for what it could be; a graceful house, decorated with lovely Federal period colors or beautiful wallpaper creating a light and airy interior.  The history of the paint sequence is gone forever but this house could still visually become a shining example of the period… and it is all cosmetic! 

Pretty Federal Colors
Someone once told me that they would rather see vinyl siding and replacement windows than peeling paint and crumbling putty.  Lots of people feel this way.  Not I!  Give me an authentic house.  Perhaps the monetary value is affected by a shabby house but its historical value may have remained intact.   Old houses can be restored but these days are frequently offered up to a developers as tear-downs.  An honest house with features intact but shabby should get a second chance.  An old house should not be judged by its condition but by its integrity and authenticity

This is a genuine 18th century window.  The windows
have survived in a house that was moved twice!
 How dare anyone recommend that our architectural legacy be torn down!  It’s happening all around us.  Restored is good, remodled or remuddled is not so good.  Recognizing the difference is important.

This sequence of photos depicts the evolution of a sea captain's house through alteration, remodeling, remuddleing and final demolition; the end of a once fine and still sturdy house.



Thanks for reading.


I like the credo of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and it is this: 

 It is better to preserve than repair, better to repair than restore, better to restore than reconstruct.”


  1. A am really enjoying your blog! Today's post could not be more true in my mind. I moved from the east to the west over 35 years ago and have never lost my love for old homes. Keep the great posts coming!

    1. Thank you so much, Paula. I didn't mean to post so often but there's so much to say!